Knee Pain: Causes, Diagnosis & Treatments

Knee pain is a common issue and can be quite bothersome. It can occur for various reasons, such as medical conditions, injuries, or excessive strain on your knee joints.

The first step to address knee pain is identifying its cause. Once your doctor determines the reason behind it, they can create a personalized treatment plan for you.

This article will clarify the various causes of knee pain, how doctors diagnose the problem, and the treatments available to improve your comfort.

What is Knee Pain?

Knee pain is when your knee joint hurts, where two bones in your leg meet – your thigh bone (femur) and shin bone (tibia). Your knee is a big joint that handles a lot of your body weight when you move, so it can get injured often.

Knee pain comes in different forms, from short-term discomfort to long-lasting issues that need medical help. Where the pain is can tell you what’s wrong:

  • Pain on the surface, above or behind the knee, usually means a problem with muscles, tendons, or ligaments.
  • Deeper knee pain might come from issues with your bones or cartilage.

Knee pain doesn’t always stay in one spot; it can spread to other parts of your knee or leg. You might feel pain on one side, like it’s from the back of your knee, and it can even go down to your lower leg or thigh.

Knee pain can come and go during the day. You might hurt when you move or bend your knee, but feel better when you rest. Some people have more pain in the morning or at night, especially if they were active during the day.

Usually, you can treat knee pain at home by taking a break from activities and using over-the-counter pain relievers. But if your knee pain really messes up your daily life or lasts more than a few days without getting better, you should see a doctor.

Common Knee Pain Symptoms

Knee pain can show up in various ways, depending on what’s causing it. Watch for these common signs and symptoms linked to knee pain:

  1. Swelling and stiffness
  2. Redness and warmth in the area
  3. Feeling of knee weakness or instability
  4. Hearable popping or crunching sounds
  5. Trouble fully straightening the knee

Causes of Knee Pain

Knee pain can happen for a few common reasons:

1. Overuse

  • Doing too much physical activity, like sports or manual labor, can strain your knee.
  • Repeating certain movements, like excessive jumping or being on your hands and knees for a long time, can also lead to knee pain.
  • This can result in conditions like runner’s knee, jumper’s knee (mostly in kids and teens), tendinitis, and bursitis.

2. Arthritis

  • Arthritis is when your joints get painful and swollen, and it often affects the knees.
  • There are different types of arthritis that can cause knee pain, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and post-traumatic arthritis.

3. Injuries

  • Knee injuries can happen for various reasons, such as repetitive strain, sports accidents, falls, or car crashes.
  • Common knee injuries linked to pain include sprains, hyperextended knees, ligament tears (like ACL, PCL, MCL, or LCL tears), meniscus tears, bone fractures, and dislocations.

Knowing these main causes of knee pain can help you deal with and manage the discomfort better.

Diagnosing Knee Problems

To diagnose knee issues, doctors use various tests along with a patient’s medical history and physical examination:

  1. X-ray: This test uses invisible energy beams to create images of the inside of the knee, including bones and tissues.

  2. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): An MRI uses powerful magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of the knee’s structures. It’s helpful for detecting damage to ligaments or muscles.

  3. Computed Tomography Scan (CT or CAT Scan): This combines X-rays with computer technology to create cross-sectional images of the knee, providing a comprehensive view of bones, muscles, fat, and organs.

  4. Arthroscopy: This minimally invasive procedure involves inserting a small camera (arthroscope) into the knee through a tiny incision. It allows doctors to examine the joint’s interior for degeneration, arthritis, bone diseases, tumors, and the cause of pain or inflammation.

  5. Radionuclide Bone Scan: This test involves injecting a small amount of radioactive material into the bloodstream, which is then detected by a scanner. It shows blood flow and cell activity within the bone, aiding in diagnosis.

Factors That Can Raise Your Risk of Knee Problems

There are several factors that can make you more likely to have knee problems. These include:

  1. Excess Weight: Carrying extra weight, whether you are overweight or obese, can put extra stress on your knee joints. Even everyday activities like walking or climbing stairs can make this stress worse. It can also speed up the wearing down of the cartilage in your joints, which increases the risk of osteoarthritis.

  2. Lack of Muscle Strength and Flexibility: Not having strong muscles and flexibility can increase your chances of getting knee injuries. Strong muscles are important for keeping your knee joints stable and protected, while flexibility helps you move your knees through their full range of motion.

  3. Specific Sports or Jobs: Some sports and occupations can be tough on your knees. Sports like alpine skiing, with its rigid ski boots and potential for falls, basketball with its frequent jumps and quick turns, and activities like running or jogging that involve repeated impact on your knees can all raise the risk of knee injuries. Similarly, jobs that require you to put a lot of stress on your knees, like construction or farming, can also make you more vulnerable.

  4. Previous Injury: If you’ve had a knee injury before, you are more likely to have another one in the future.

How to Treat Knee Pain

1. Self-Care Strategies

  • Rest: Take it easy and avoid strenuous activities to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Ice: Apply cold packs to your knee for 15-20 minutes several times a day to reduce swelling.
  • Support: Use supports like taping, braces, or wraps for stability and relief.

2. Physical Therapy

A physical therapist will recommend exercises to strengthen your knee, improve mobility, and aid recovery after an injury.

3. Medications

  • NSAIDs: These drugs help with knee pain caused by conditions like arthritis.
  • Injections: Cortisone injections can be used for persistent pain and swelling, especially in knee osteoarthritis.
  • Other Medications: Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe different medications.

4. Complementary and Alternative Therapies

  • Consider mind-body therapies like acupuncture, yoga, and tai chi, especially for knee osteoarthritis.
  • Be cautious with supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin, as their effectiveness is uncertain.

5. Surgery

Surgery is reserved for specific conditions like ligament injuries, fractures, infected knee joints, advanced osteoarthritis, or joint replacement for degenerative diseases.

Remember to consult your healthcare provider before starting any treatment or taking supplements.

How to Prevent Knee Pain

Here are some simple steps to prevent knee pain:

  1. Maintain a Healthy Weight: Keeping your weight in check is important for your knee health. Extra weight strains your joints and increases the risk of injuries and osteoarthritis.

  2. Condition Your Body: Prioritize conditioning exercises to prepare your muscles for sports and physical activities. This helps lower the risk of injuries.

  3. Perfect Your Technique: Make sure your sports or activity techniques are excellent. Consider getting professional lessons to improve your form and movements.

  4. Build Strength and Flexibility: Strengthen your thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings) to support your knees better. Balance and stability training can also improve muscle coordination around your knees. Don’t forget to do flexibility exercises to prevent tight muscles.

  5. Modify Your Exercise Routine: If you have osteoarthritis, chronic knee pain, or recurring injuries, think about switching to low-impact activities like swimming or water aerobics a few days a week. Reducing high-impact activities can help ease knee discomfort.

When Should You See a Doctor for Knee Pain?

If you have ongoing knee pain that interferes with your daily routine or stops you from doing regular activities, you may make an appointment with your doctor. 

If you’ve experienced a major accident like a car crash or a bad fall and can’t move your knee or think it might be broken, go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately.

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